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Black And White And Platinum All Over

The group that's established itself as the most important in pop music during the past year doesn't even play instruments. The only noise its members make is the sound of thoughtful hand clapping or finger snapping. Without further introduction, then, meet the Guilty White Liberals.

Why did the music world embrace Tracy Chapman as if she were the new Bob Dylan? Because she writes great songs? Perhaps. Because of her rich, emotive voice? Maybe. Because she's black? Absolutely.

Why has Living Colour been compared to no less a band than Led Zeppelin when it sounds nothing like Zeppelin? Because it has a winning style of accessible heavy metal with righteous funk overtones? Possibly. Because Vernon Reid is arguably the best guitarist in rock 'n' roll? Could be. Because Living Colour's members are black? You'd better believe it.

Sure, both acts have received endless reams of newsprint full of critical acclaim. Some people would argue that color has nothing to do with those accolades. Critics jumped on the bandwagon to hail Chapman as a soft, but politically righteous, voice in a pop-music wasteland where disco teen queens were baring little but their drivel. Critics have thanked Living Colour for putting such a heavy coat of responsible make-up on heavy-metal's filth-encrusted visage. With politically and socially conscious songs like "Cult of Personality" and "Open Letter (to a Landlord)," the band has provided a refreshing alternative to the mindlessness of the Poison-Bon Jovi dung factory.

But it wasn't these attributes that won over critics and fans in droves, at least initially. It was color.

When Chapman's album was released last year, it didn't start out like a three-million seller, but more like a college-radio-type, quasi-underground sensation. When her debut hit the stores in April 1988, it was still a relatively cool thing for a small group of hep undergrounders to snap up the CD.

Then Tracy Chapman showed her face to Guilty White Liberals in America and the world over. With her album barely more than two months old, Chapman, no doubt through a major publicity finagle by her label, was invited to play at the Nelson Mandela Seventieth Birthday Tribute on June 11. Armed only with a single microphone and acoustic guitar, she faced 72,000 people in London's Wembley Stadium and flat out stole the show. Chapman sang her liberal manifesto, "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," and a stadium and country full of Brits had to have Tracy Chapman's tape the next day. Tracy Chapman entered Billboard's British albums chart on June 25 at No. 25. The following week it leaped to No. 2, and a week later it hit the top.

Guilty White Liberal Americans also had to have a peek at Chapman before falling in love with her. MTV added her "Fast Car" video on April 20. Her album then debuted at No. 122 on Billboard's Top Pop albums chart on April 30. MTV gave Chapman another push on April 27, moving her video to active rotation, and the album took another huge jump, this time to No. 77.

When Living Colour's Vivid was released last April, sales were so bad that Epic Records' suits 'n' ties were left scratching their heads. The company, rumor had it, was considering dumping the band outright. It took until September to sell 100,000 copies after Epic released "Middle Man" to album-rock radio and the song's video to MTV. Both outlets weren't buying. Then, in October, MTV placed the more political "Cult of Personality" video in active rotation and showed much of the world, in living color, the first completely black heavy-metal band it had ever seen.

Word spread about a group of black musicians that actually dared to play music that wasn't funk, rap, soul, gospel or jazz, and in February, MTV moved "Cult of Personality" into heavy rotation. Before the month was through, Vivid had gone gold. In roughly the same time it took Living Colour to sell 100,000 copies of its album without a video, it sold 400,000 more copies with a video. And with "Cult" in heavy rotation, it took Living Colour only two more months to sell 500,000 additional copies, ensuring Vivid platinum status.

MDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnew Sure, the list of artists who've relied on videos to go platinum is endless. But those acts have typically shown that their music alone just can't cut the mustard. Pick up the latest CDs by Madonna or Duran Duran if you don't believe it.

MDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnew Of course, Chapman and Living Colour are supposed to be different. Guilty White Liberals claim their music is so commercially and critically viable that it doesn't matter what color they are. So why didn't Chapman or Living Colour take off until the world had seen their faces?

And let's not forget those politically correct lyrics. Guilty White Liberals are in constant need of performers who will tell them just how screwed up the world is.

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David Koen

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